After upset Iraq vote, U.S. to embrace former foe
WASHINGTON — Fourteen years after Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias fought American troops, the United States is preparing to work hand in hand with the charismatic Shiite cleric and his movement, hoping to find common cause in curtailing Iran’s influence in the wake of an upset Iraqi election.
Like many Iraqis, Washington was caught off guard by the election, in which a coalition organized by al-Sadr took the largest share of the parliamentary vote. Although al-Sadr, who didn’t run himself, won’t become prime minister, his movement will have an outsize role in building the next government and determining the course of Iraq’s future.
Can the U.S. really set aside the past and embrace a cleric whose Mahdi Army killed U.S. and Iraqi troops and was accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunni Iraqis? The tentative answer is yes.
U.S. officials involved in Iraq policy said President Donald Trump’s administration was cautiously optimistic that al-Sadr, having evolved over the years into a populist, corruption-fighting leader, could herald the formation of a broad-based and inclusive government that tolerates a continuing American presence in the country.
Al-Sadr has turned away from his previous alignment with Iran. U.S. officials believe that will make it more difficult for Tehran to install an Iran-friendly government in Baghdad. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss Iraq’s election publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said recent public messages from al-Sadr bode positively for U.S. interests — such as finishing off the Islamic State group, a common enemy of the U.S. and al-Sadr’s militia. In addition to vowing to respect Iraq’s constitution, al-Sadr has emphasized Iraqi sovereignty and the need for a balanced foreign policy that limits Iran’s influence, as well as his ability to work with secularists and liberals such as Iraq’s communist party.
“If he practices what he says — if a former adversary embraces your objectives — one should respond to that, but be cautious until you see changes on the ground,” Khalilzad said. “If he’s willing to engage, we should be prepared to engage as well.”
Publicly, the Trump administration has said little about the success of al-Sadr’s slate of candidates, in part because the vote count hasn’t been finalized and a new coalition government has yet to be formed.